Jim Brown was a former US serviceman who lived in Sydney from 1968 to 1972. Like a lot of people back then he was struck by the oil-on-glass pub advertising paintings which adorned most of Sydney’s pubs. During the first half of the twentieth century a lot of advertising graphics and signs were the work of artists like those at the Rousel Studio. A painterly touch was common.
By the 1960s a mix of art and advertising was uncommon. A few young artists like Robert Hughes and Max Cullen declared their admiration for pub paintings. Cullen told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1968 that the paintings were wonderful but were ignored because they ‘depict people wearing fashions forty years old…We are going to put speech balloons in them containing mad comments and put Dick Tracy two-way wrist watches on the men. By taking them out of context we think people will notice them again’.
I don’t know if the speech balloon project happened but at the same time Jim Brown was also becoming ‘fascinated with the pub signs, especially the sporting ones. When I noticed in 1972 that the signs were being taken down I walked all over Sydney photographing them and wound up with over 50 slides of different scenes, mostly sporting. I tried to buy a sign to send home, but could not find one for sale’.
In 2002 Jim contacted me from the US, having heard about my Refreshing! book about pub paintings. He lent me his slides for copying and you can see a few of them here (Jim’s reflection can also be seen in some).
Jim’s photos are the only record of many pub paintings which did not survive Tooth & Co’s decision to remove them from the pubs; most were taken back to the brewery where the paint was stripped off and the glass was sold. Some were rescued by publicans and others and some of these have been acquired by the Powerhouse, which also holds the few paintings preserved at the brewery. The Powerhouse has about 30 pub paintings, probably the largest collection of them – it’s also one of our most popular collections, although unfortunately we haven’t displayed any pub paintngs for some time.
Pub paintings are mainly one-offs, commissioned for particular pubs. They were the work of only a dozen or so artists, most of whom had reputations in the fine art world. Of the 6000 or so pub paintings produced from the 1930s to the 1960s probably only a few hundred survive. As a result pub paintings can fetch good prices on the rare occasions they turn up for sale.
Only one of the paintings recorded by Jim Brown wound up in the PHM collection, a few others I know are now in private collections. No doubt some more are still out there including hopefully the one below: In the early 70s I spent a dreary year in a pen-pushing job above the Imperial Arcade in Pitt Street. This painting adorned a nearby pub on Pitt or Market Streets and I often admired it – the smart city girls ‘after a tiring day’ had retained their mid-century poise for decades. Perhaps they are still doing so somewhere.
Charles Pickett, curator.